Samothrace, Greece

Everyone knows the Squire is crazy for an adventure but I wasn’t sure what to expect when we decided to trek to the mystical island of Samothrace, close to Turkey in the north Aegean, after the season had ended.  My love of all things natural struck a chord when I set foot on the island, which earns my vote for the best up and coming nature lover’s paradise.

I’ll start by saying that the memory of a few chilly days spent in Mykonos in early October had me worried about the plans, but it was late September and  I’d heard that the picturesque mountains looming over rugged beaches with scenic coves were an eyeful. Plus, the meandering streams and waterfalls waiting to be discovered would lure the nature boy in me.  Don’t even get me started on the gregarious islanders, each with a relative back home bending over backwards to please.  And let’s not forget the food, of course, always memorable in Greece.  It’s true that the blinding white architecture and winding cobblestone alleys of the Cyclades Islands are what most people think of when it comes to Greece but there’s something to be said for lush vegetation, massive trees swaying in the breeze and flowering shrubs dotting a landscape that looks ready for Van Gogh or Monet.  Be sure to bring a 4 gig chip for your camera if you go.

Let’s get history out of the way first, and put Samothrace (also known as Samothraki) in perspective.  Perhaps you’ve seen the famous statue of the Winged Victory (Nike) in the foyer of the Louvre in Paris?  That masterpiece of sculpture, made famous worldwide as the Rolls Royce hood decoration, was discovered on Samothrace by a French archeologist in 1863 and carried off to Paris.  It’s hard to believe today standing among the ruins where the statue once stood, that this unassuming island provided a major contribution to world culture.  You got it.  What would a Greek island be without a treasure trove of antiquities?  Except that on Samothrace, spectacular green pebble beaches and nature in its wildest forms are also waiting when you tire of the culture.

We were told that the island was a hiker’s paradise and as it came into view after two hours on a ferry from Alexandroupoli, it was obvious why.  A large land mass glowed in the afternoon sunlight, the rocky, even brooding landscape dotted with green hills and valleys.  It wasn’t until the ferry approached the port that we had a sense of anyone living there and while the commercial vibe of the village of Kamariotissa wasn’t exactly a perfect photo op, it was picturesque and alive with activity.

We decided to ground ourselves as soon we drove our car off the boat and get accustomed to the carefree comings and goings of island life.  Plus, we were hungry after that trip and the town’s long narrow street was bustling with tavernas.  We trusted the spirit of Nike herself, a large, modern interpretation rendered in shining steel and placed proudly in the square, to guide us to some fresh fish.

An army of skinny cats guarded the entrance to the restaurant, a good sign we thought.  Several hours and many ouzos later we’d begun to channel our island groove and decided to “walk the town” to see what we could find.  Most of the shops were of the souvenir variety but how many people do you know with a Samothraki tee shirt?  Besides, we needed maps for navigating and some beverages and snacks to take back to the hotel.

The short drive to the Archontissa Hotel took us along a scenic winding road with hairpin curves that, at first, followed along the coast.  It was nicely paved, a perfect width for two cars and at times ran close enough to the deep blue Aegean that you could stop for an impromptu picnic and quick swim. We got to know this route pretty well after a couple drives back and forth and it became a great test run for practicing our drag racing skills. After roughly 10 kilometers of skimming the sea, the road became densely overgrown and we found ourselves covered by the lush greenery of the forest, with enormous bowing trees creating a cool canopy over our vehicle and the mountain rising steeply to our right.  Here and there a small house sprang up or an occasional sign signaled a restaurant or guest house but for the most part it looked remote.

A gradual clearing opened up a few kilometers further and the road widened as we paralleled the foothills of majestic Mount Fengari, clouds floating around her peak. The spectacular scenery was panoramic and soon we approached the long white walls of the hotel with its imposing iron gates and sign rendered in curlicue letters.  Stopping to enter, we heard cowbells, the only sound piercing the beautiful silence outside. In the adjacent hills, a herd of goats was having lunch.

We raced to unpack our suits and get down to the beach for a swim before dusk, but when we got there we were alone so off went the suits.  There is nothing like diving into the sea in Greece, especially au naturel; it’s … well, like Baptism almost.  As the night set in we decided to rest up for a big day of hiking in the mountains but couldn’t go without ouzos and fish in town, of course.

Next morning not knowing what to expect, we ate a big Greek breakfast with freshly made jam and bread and set off to grapple with the Mt. Fengari mountain range and the Vathres, small natural pools created by the waterfalls along the Fonias River, where we could swim buck naked in icy cold, pure mountain water. No need to pack the suit this time, who would notice?  A 30 minute climb along a shaded path that followed the river and alternated between easy and difficult led us to our nirvana, a waterfall plunging into a black pool.  Guess what?  It was cold (but still wonderful) and surprise!  When we made it there, we were not alone.  This time the suits had to stay on.

A typical Greek lunch in the woods followed and afterwards we hustled over to Kipos Beach to keep the thread, so to speak.  The drive further west was dreamy, again, goats were our only company and after a series of hills and curves we descended steeply to a large pebbled beach with strong wind and surf which got our engines revving.  When we saw that we had the beach to ourselves we cast fate to the wind, suits went flying and we became like dolphins rehearsing for the paying customers.  Again, the sea was like … well, you already know!  When darkness fell, all we could talk about was the next day’s excursion to the mysterious Sanctuary of the Gods.  After some ouzos, the debate became who would make the best video there.

Well, take a guess who won the debate?  Both the Squire and I welled up in awe of the Sanctuary of the Gods and we had so much on our minds in sight of the ruins that we were practically tongue tied.  I managed to get out some obvious facts but this place was deep and maybe even a little over our heads.   The exploration required several hours of hiking and contemplation (a secret society? – hmmm, I could relate) and guess what we needed after?  We hot tailed it to Pahia Ammos Beach, a fabulous drive to the west over the island’s hills and dales, and soon sat on the golden sands, after a nice long swim of course.  It might be nice to watch a sunset here, but maybe put the suits back on first, huh?

Our next and last day took us to Chora, the bewitching hillside capital of Samothrace.  Just a short drive in the hills above Kamariotissa and we were meandering up (and down) winding cobblestone streets with tiny stone churches and a curious taverna with friendly patrons around every turn.  I felt a bit like the Pied Piper when I saw all our friendly felines behind us. Allright, no swimming here but so what, there was the food and the ouzo!

Sometimes getting back to basics is all you need and following a course that’s guided by nature helps. The Greeks know this well. Plain yogurt with honey and fruit for breakfast, swimming in the sea whenever the mood strikes, and watching a sunset while savoring an ouzo.  These are the little glories of Greece that can’t be underestimated.  Our time on Samothrace convinced me that there’s so much more to Greece than what we see in brochures and advertisements.  Add to that a sense of stepping back in time to when a Greek island wasn’t thronged with tourists and you have something incredibly special.  And by the way, cat lovers take note.  This island is your mecca.